The Howard League for Penal Reform

Our concerns about new Ministry of Justice measures to handle prisoners on their recall into custody

Thousands of people released from prison on fixed term licences are returned to prison each year at the request of their probation officers. The system allows for standard and emergency recalls straight back to prison with no consideration by a court. The reason for this is to ensure that the public can be protected. Nobody can object to that. But, nor, is it right or cost effective that people should be detained a moment longer than necessary or released at the end of their sentence without any supervision because nobody is able to make the judgement call that they are safe to be released again.

For the past forty years, a huge proportion of these cases have been reviewed by the Parole Board and many are re-released safely on licence. It is not unusual for a person to have been recalled following an arrest for a further offence which turns out to lead nowhere or on the strength of an unfounded allegation.

It was therefore a surprise to discover that three working days before it was due to be debated in the House of Lords, the government laid amendments to Part 1 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill introducing a whole new scheme for fixed term recalls to prison. They provide for the use of ‘recall adjudicators’ in determinate recall cases – any case where a prisoner serving a fixed term sentence is recalled to custody and falls to be considered for re-release on licence.

As Lord Faulks admitted in the House on 20 October 2014, there remains ‘unknown detail about the precise operation, impact and cost of the new model’. Nothing is known about this scheme other than that recall adjudicators will have ‘significant criminal justice experience’. There is nothing in the proposed amendments to say whether recall adjudicators would be impartial or independent, trained professionals or lay people; whether hearings would be ‘on the papers’ or oral, what powers recall adjudicators would have to require evidence and information or whether legal aid would be available for prisoners subject to it.

Yet it is quite clear that if passed, the amendments will enable the Secretary of State to hive off a section of work currently completed by the Parole Board and will provide the Secretary of State a wide discretion to set up a new scheme without further debate or discussion in parliament. The provisions are widely drafted and raise a number of concerns.

There is no provision for the process to be judicial and no provision for legal aid. Without safeguards, there is a real risk that these changes could see a vast increase in the prison population.

The work itself is not disappearing and on the government’s own analysis may well increase considerably as it rolls out its Transforming Rehabilitation programme and as a result of further aspects the Bill that will lower the test for recall to release from the risk of harm to the public to non-compliance with licence conditions. While the proposal provides the option for the parole board not to have to complete this work, there is nothing in this proposal that will result in a reduction in recalls. If the parole board does undertake the work, there is no point in introducing the scheme on the basis that it would lessen the burden on the parole board. If the parole board does not undertake this work, there will be the increased cost of recruiting and training new adjudicators and devising a new scheme.

Most frightening of all is the sheer disregard for the Parliamentary process demonstrated by the decision to present a scheme to peers for endorsement without any detail as to what it will involve or the consequences just three working days before report stage. At best, recall adjudicators will require all the financial and administrative costs of a new scheme. At worst they could result in the need for thousands more prison places in a system bursting at the seams.

October 21, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Overcrowding, Prisons, Probation, Rehabilitation

Secure college proposals put girls at risk

On Friday I wrote to the Justice Secretary to express my serious concern about government plans to incarcerate girls in a secure college for children. The story ran in a number of newspapers yesterday. Here is the letter in full:

Dear Mr Grayling

I am writing to you directly to raise serious concerns regarding the plans to incarcerate girls in the proposed ‘secure college’.

The Howard League has years of experience of working with girls in the penal system and in custody in particular.

We have delivered services to help juvenile girls for several years when they were being detained in Bullwood Hall prison with a worker based in the prison supporting the girls through their sentence, providing practical help and advice.

Our legal team has represented more than a hundred girls advocating for them and securing improved conditions inside and on release.

You will no doubt be aware that our legal team secured a public inquiry into the case of SP to investigate the poor treatment she was subjected to in New Hall and Low Newton prisons. Even though she was known to be extremely vulnerable and was attempting suicide so seriously as to fill her cell with blood, she was placed in effective solitary confinement. It was only through the intervention of Howard League lawyers that she was transferred to a mental hospital. We expect public hearings next year.

The Howard League provides support to the All Part Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, chaired by Baroness Corston. Last year the APPG held a year long inquiry into girls in the penal system, hearing oral evidence from senior practitioners and experts and gathering written evidence about the routes into the penal system and the treatment of girls in custody. The notes from meetings and the published briefings are on the Howard League website.

We have commissioned, conducted and published research on girls in the penal system from top academics. This has included research on the criminalisation of girl victims of sexual abuse written by Professor Jo Phoenix. This is obviously a sensitive issue of intense public concern and our evidence that girls are inappropriately brought into the criminal justice system when they are in fact victims of the most awful sexual abuse and violence is borne out by the events in Rotherham.

We recently completed a five year participation programme funded by the Big Lottery engaging with young people who were in, or had been in, penal custody. We worked alongside many girls and young women who were in secure units, secure training centres and prisons and who had recently been released from these institutions. We gathered first hand testimony about their experiences, treatment and its impact on their well-being and life chances.  We would be pleased to pass on this information as it represents a unique reservoir of knowledge about how girls should be treated in custody.

You will know that we have been working with police services round the country to support their success at reducing child arrests and we are particularly gratified at the reduction in the arrest of girls.

Finally, our staff visit establishments detaining girls and community schemes dealing with girls who are in contact with the criminal justice system so we can learn from the first-hand experience of both professional staff and the young women themselves.

The Howard League is the leading authority on the discrete needs of girls in the criminal justice system.

There are currently only 45 girls in custody in England and Wales. The evidence shows that girls in the criminal justice system have disproportionately horrific backgrounds of rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and exploitation. We contend that placing a handful of girls into an institution with hundreds of teenage boys will put the girls at risk of sexual assault and exploitation. More subtly than this, it is not just about the levels of violence – sexual or otherwise – it is that girls cannot flourish because there will be so few of them in an institution designed by men for men.

Further, it is a matter of great concern that the only concession offered by the government is that the complex needs of these girls would be acknowledged by creating a mother and baby unit. A prison within a prison, for children with children. It appears to be an admission of failure from the start that the girls’ safety will be so precarious that they could even fall pregnant.

Yesterday, I visited Clayfields Secure Children’s Home that shows what can be achieved with some of the most troubled and challenging children with the right resources, management and ethos. This establishment is the antithesis of what is proposed in the secure prison.

First and foremost, any secure institution is where children will live and should resemble a home. The evidence shows that small, intensively-staffed environments keep children safe and address their behaviour. In such a well-resourced environment, and with a balanced ratio between girls and boys, it can be possible to mix the genders in a safe way. Secure children’s homes already provide this for the handful of children who require custody: we do not need to reinvent the wheel, we should invest money into what is already working.

The proposals to imprison girls in the ‘secure college’ are the antithesis of good practice. If this plan were to go ahead it would create serious, unprecedented, safeguarding risks.

I hope that you acknowledge that this issue is severe enough to warrant your attention and urge you to reconsider this ill-thought through and dangerous plan.

I would be happy to provide any further information or meet with you to discuss the matter.

Yours sincerely


Frances Crook

September 29, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

The prison crisis is a question of evidence, not party politics

Yesterday Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, wrote an article claiming that prisons were not in crisis and that suicides behind bars were merely unfortunate but, crucially, entirely beyond his control.

On the same day he published a report by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) into Wandsworth prison that was devastating in its criticism of every aspect of the prison linked to staff cuts, that exposed people being unsafe, overcrowding, insanitary conditions and deaths. The IMB is appointed by him to tell him what is happening in prisons. It is the latest in a string of reports that reveal the crisis in prisons.

Mr Grayling claims that education is being increased, but there is uncertainty over education in 12 London prisons as the provider withdrew from the contract after payments were reduced when staff cuts meant that prisoners were not being escorted to classes. Education in prisons holding children has not increased or improved.

Recent reports by HM chief inspector of prisons reveal prisons that are dangerous, dirty and where activity is rare. Wormwood Scrubs, Chelmsford, Isis, Hindley, Doncaster, Preston, Ranby, Birmingham and Gartree are all overcrowded with prisoners lying idle in filthy cells. The only report that had a ray of light was on a small special unit for 50 boys that has more than 70 staff, so no wonder it can cope. The other prisons have faced staff cuts of more than one-third.

It is worth taking one prison as an example to show what things are really like. The Wandsworth report illustrates the problems faced by prisons. The prison holds 1,600 adult men despite only being certified to hold 943. Three years ago it had 427 prison officers; by June this year the number had been cut to 260. The prison was built in 1851 and the wings are Victorian.

The IMB says: “Staff reductions have had a detrimental effect across the prison; restricted residential activity, availability of and attendance at work and education, stretched legal services, reduced gym sessions, changed food provision, cancelled outpatient appointments, problems with property, insufficient Mandatory Drug Testing and reduced library attendance.”

The prison has traditionally held only adult men but recently teenagers have been detained there and this has led to a more volatile environment with an increase in the use of force by staff. Staff are not trained to deal with teenagers.

Three men died in the prison in the last year; one hanged himself. There were 536 known cases of men who were suicidal. Violent incidents increased by one-third.

There is a shortage of activity places so 500 prisoners are locked in their cells all day, even if the rest are only allowed to go to activities part time. The Secretary of State claimed that more prisoners were working but the IMB in Wandsworth says: “The Board takes the view that the Government’s policy to get all prisoners working is not supported by the resources necessary to make this a reality.”

This is one prison but the pattern is repeated across the estate. Six prisoners took their own lives in six days a couple of weeks ago. Greg Revell was only 18 when he was left alone in his cell overnight in Glen Parva and hanged himself in June. Most prisons have less than a handful of staff on duty at night so even if a teenager cries for help there is no one to comfort them. Greg had mental health problems and entered the prison with red welts round his neck where he had attempted suicide. Greg’s mother is grieving for her child.

The Howard League published figures showing the staff cuts and the Ministry of Justice tried to claim that they were untrue, until it had to admit that the statistics were their own. We have up-to-date figures to show that staff cuts have continued.

The closure or re-roling of 18 prisons, cramming those prisoners into already overcrowded jails, sending more people to prison every week and staff cuts have created a perfect storm. There have been few riots because men are locked in their cells most of the time. As one prison officer said to me, caged young men come out fighting. This accounts for increased assaults and suicides.

The Secretary of State should read the reports from his inspectors and the watchdogs he has appointed. Prisons have deteriorated under his management and he is responsible for the outcomes. It is not a question of party politics and it is cheap to pretend so. It is a question of evidence.

September 19, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons

World Suicide Prevention Day

Fifty men, women and teenage boys have taken their own lives in prison this year in England and Wales. This is a significant increase on recent years when reduced overcrowding and increased focus on suicide prevention was saving lives.

I was shocked to hear the Secretary of State for Justice be so complacent about the deaths of prisoners yesterday when questioned by MPs.

There is a clear correlation between people being locked up for longer and longer in stinking cells with nothing to do, hardly ever getting outside into the fresh air and a lack of purpose to their lives, and an increase in violence and suicide.

A few weeks ago the Howard League published a briefing showing that the closure and re-roling of 18 prisons and consequent transfer of that population to other jails has crammed people into already overcrowded prisons. At the same time the number of prison officers has been cut by about a third. To complete the perfect storm, the prison population has risen inexorably. There are consequences and it is disingenuous of politicians to try to shirk responsibility for their policies.

Deaths by suicide in prison became a matter of national concern in the 1990s and there were new measures put in place to support people in crisis. It was recognised that the fact of prison, the institution and its nature, was itself a contributory factor. Ministers established a board to oversee changes, bringing together experts from the voluntary sector and operational chiefs from the NHS, prison and police services. For a few years the reducing numbers of prisoners, increased budgets for education and focus on getting prisoners to work had an impact and the death rate fell.

Things changed a couple of years ago with the combination of increased numbers and budget cuts. There simply are not enough staff to get people to health care appointments, out of their cells to go to education classes, for a shower or a phone call home. Inspection report after inspection report has revealed the horror of prison life today, for staff and for inmates.

When an 18-year-old with known mental health problems and who had the red welts on his neck of a previous suicide attempt takes his own life on his second night in prison, it should be an issue of shame to the secretary of state, and indeed, to the nation.

September 10, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Inside prisons, Mental health, Overcrowding, Prisons, suicide

Wormwood Scrubs, Glen Parva, Isis, Hindley… Prisons are in meltdown

Penal policy is political in the best sense of the word. It is about the safety of the people and how we should respond to those amongst our community who violate the law. But, it is also political in the worst sense of the word as it is a weapon of party politics. The last four years has seen both of these in chiaroscuro.

Today a report on Wormwood Scrubs prison illustrates the desperate state of prisons, but more about that later.

At the early years of the Coalition’s term of government from 2010 to 2012, the intention was to reduce the use of prison by curtailing the power of the magistrates courts to remand to custody and abolish the indeterminate sentence for public protection.  The second aim was for fewer people in prison and slowly the numbers reduced by around 3,000 at any one time. The third aim was to get prisoners busy with a focus on work and training.

From 2012 this trajectory was abruptly abandoned and instead the newly appointed secretary of state for justice concentrated on encouraging punishment by introducing restricted regimes in prisons and ending the pressure to reduce prison sentences and remands. Eighteen prisons were closed and staff cut by more than 30%.

I have never seen a public service deteriorate so rapidly and so profoundly.

I know my prisons. I have been to almost all the prisons in England and Wales, many of them several times, and I have spent a long time in each prison talking to staff and inmates and looking at facilities. I have visited prisons in the US, South America and across Eastern and Western Europe.

In 2011 I visited 10 prisons to see for myself the improvements being made at that time. Declining numbers and governors using their initiative resulted in prisoners being out of their cells for longer, employed on recycling schemes, manufacturing and taking education classes. It was not perfect, but it was all going in the right direction.

In the last two years prisons have gone into meltdown. Since June inspection reports on Glen Parva, Isis, Hindley, Doncaster, Preston, Ranby, Gartree, Winchester and Bedford prisons have shown a pattern of inactivity, violence, lethargy and filth. Wormwood Scrubs is one of the biggest prisons in the country and today has one of the worst reports I have ever read.

The death rate has soared with suicides of teenage boys a particular tragedy. Deaths from what are called “natural causes” have increased so that people are dying when they might have been saved.

A new category of death is being recorded. Drugs are so rife in prisons that people are using a cocktail of prescribed drugs and illicit drugs that are sometimes lethal.

The few staff who are left cannot be blamed for the dire state of prisons, responsibility lies in the policies that create the crisis.

The toxic mix of closing 18 prisons and redistributing the prisoners to already overcrowded jails has tipped many over the safe limit. Courts and parole boards react to political pressures so the number of people sent to prison on remand rose and the sentences got longer and the number released on parole went down whilst recalls went up. Staff cuts reduced front line prison officers by more than 30 per cent.

This means, on the landings, that people are on restricted regimes and not getting out of their dark, smelly, unventilated cells that are the size of a small cubicle and contain a toilet they have to share.

I hope that prisons become a highly political issue and that people in this country see that stinking prisons are not serving them well. It’s not about party politics, it’s about human politics.


September 3, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons

Politics, charities and civil society

Last Sunday the Secretary of State for Justice wrote an article for the Telegraph attacking charities for being politically biased. It was posted and then taken down almost immediately, but I expect it to reappear, as, whilst it is more strident in tone, the article repeats accusations he has made in the past. He is not the only politician to attack charities for being critical of government policies as organisations working on development, hunger, housing, children, disability, poverty and social support have been the focus of a barrage of insults. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of civil society in our democracy.

The current government has a Victorian vision of the role of charities. It believes that charities should provide succour to the poor and provide the safety net that the state is increasingly withdrawing from. They should do this silently and refrain from analysing or criticising the policies and practices that create the need in the first place. Should they vocalise concerns this apparently becomes political.

Over the past few months the criticism of the Howard League coming from the Secretary of State for Justice has got more shrill and more personal. I have asked to see correspondence and minutes from his office that name the charity and that name me but so far I have been refused access. I am appealing this refusal with the Information Commissioner.

Today Labour held a ‘summit’ on the crisis in prisons and I was invited to attend. I decided in the end it was not appropriate as the Labour press office sent out a notice pre-empting the discussion by listing the policies the party had already decided on, many of which I think are wrong or trivial. Secondly, the event was branded as so partisan that I felt it was inappropriate for a charity to attend. I meet with Labour MPs, Conservative MPs, LibDems and Plaid, and peers from across the House and am pleased to discuss our research and ideas.

The UK has one of the best developed and most diverse third sectors of any nation state and we should be proud of this. NCVO estimates that the sector employs three quarters of a million people and has a value of £11 billion, contributing significantly to a healthy national economy as well as underpinning a healthy society.

It is naïve to think that organisations who are motivated by public and individual welfare would not want to stem the flow of misery. Catching people as they cascade out of the factory of mistaken policies, which are causing the problems that charities are having to mop up, makes no sense.

There are charities that are muzzled by virtue of their contractual arrangements with government and perhaps this is the vision for the future that is being preferred. Some of the bigger charities rely on all their income coming from government and provide services that hitherto have been undertaken by the public sector. This hobbles them from speaking out and they have become  complicit with government policies. These organisations represent the compliant model that the government would like to see all charities conforming to.

Fortunately these charities are few. Most third sector groups guard their independence fiercely and want to use their research and expertise for the public good. This means speaking out without fear or favour, in the old cliché, it means speaking truth to power.

The Howard League is independent. It relies on funding from a wide variety of donors and we make sure that this continues to be the case so that we are not dependent on any one source. We do not accept government grants. The charity is impartial and non-aligned. We publish our research and as our core charitable objective is public education, we are happy to meet people from all political parties to share our expertise and our experience. We have members of different political parties as members, and our membership is growing rapidly.

Government ministers should be more grown up in taking criticism on the chin. When it is legitimate and well founded criticism governments should review and improve policies. Democracy is founded on learning from debate.

The Howard League will not be defamed by one party or purloined by another. We will not be bullied.

August 13, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Howard League, Public Services

It is 50 years since Britain’s last executions

It is extraordinary that it is only 50 years ago that we last hanged people in this country. The country has moved on so much in that time and it is simply not an issue any more. I cannot remember the last time that I was asked to do a media interview about the death penalty and the last vote in Parliament was a couple of decades ago.

The Howard League was founded in 1866, the year of the first Royal Commission on capital punishment that recommended an end to public executions. The charity led the campaign for abolition for the next century. In the job I had before I joined the Howard League, leading campaigns for the British Section of Amnesty International, I was also responsible for its campaign against the death penalty, so it is an issue that I feel strongly about and have worked on for most of my professional life.

Progress can be fragile and whilst it is important to make gains in humane policies, to get them enacted and enforced, that is not enough. It is also important to embed them. That is also the role of voluntary organisations. I am proud that not only was the Howard League the key organisation arguing for abolition for the last part of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, but that we also led the Parliamentary lobbying to make sure that it was not reintroduced.

There were several votes in Parliament in the 1980s and early 1990s. Never was there any doubt that the majority to maintain abolition was under threat, but it was important to make sure that the numbers were overwhelming. It is interesting, as an ironical aside, to note that the only Liberal MP to vote for reintroduction was Cyril Smith.

Alongside our work with MPs we focussed on public education in this country and international campaigns. Abolition of capital punishment is enshrined in the human rights remit of the United Nations. Every single one of 47 countries in the Council of Europe has abolished the death penalty.

It is the anniversary of the state killing of two men, one hanged in Liverpool prison and one in Manchester on 13 August 1964. We must never forget and we must make sure it never, ever happens again.

You can help. The Howard League is building a movement; we have doubled our membership in two years. Members and regular supporters give our campaigns authority and financial independence. There are not many charities left that don’t rely on funding from government, and we are proud to be one of the last ones standing. We will continue to campaign with independence, integrity, authority and for the issues that matter. Join us.

August 12, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Uncategorized

Payment by results has failed and what is coming is a lot worse

The long-anticipated results from the payment by results pilots in Peterborough and Doncaster prisons show that both projects have failed. Peterborough missed its target of reducing reoffending by 10 per cent, and Doncaster did just enough not to lose any money, but not enough to make any.

It is appalling, but not surprising, that Chris Grayling and the Ministry of Justice are attempting to suggest these very underwhelming results support the destruction of the probation service. Firstly, neither of the projects hit the targets the Ministry of Justice itself set, and secondly, the probation reforms bear little resemblance to these pilot projects. Transforming Rehabilitation is very different and a lot worse.

Supervision and support for those released from Peterborough prison after short sentences was funded by substantial additional money through social impact bonds – which is extra investment from the lottery and charitable trusts that could have gone to good causes. The government’s plans are to take money from probation to give it to private companies or consortia to manage people coming out of prison or on community sentences.

Under Transforming Rehabilitation services will need to be provided to at least 50,000 people emerging from short prison sentences but no more money will be available. In the Peterborough project intensive and specialised services were provided by experienced charitable organisations, who still failed to make any significant impact on reoffending, because they were given the impossible task of undoing the damage done by the prison.

The expansion of the scheme nationwide will simply be impossible to achieve without busting the budget.

Furthermore, involvement in the Peterborough project was voluntary. Those leaving the prison after serving short sentences were offered support, advice and help, but didn’t have to take it. Contrastingly, participation in Transforming Rehabilitation will be compulsory and non-compliance will be met with punitive sanctions including further imprisonment. The Ministry of Justice itself estimates that there will be at least 13,000 additional counterproductive and expensive short term prison sentences as a result of the changes.  No wonder they are rushing to build a Titan prison to hold all the extra prisoners.

Increasing the use of short-term prison sentences is the single worst thing you can do if you want to reduce crime. Instead of wasting money trying to undo the damage caused by a short prison sentence, the damage should just not be inflicted in the first place.

Short periods in jail do much more harm than good. Men and women sit in our cramped, violent and filthy prisons for a couple of weeks or months before very often being released into unemployment and homelessness. If the Ministry of Justice invested in robust community sentences and used them instead of short prison sentences, crime rates would plummet and billions of pounds would be saved.

The Transforming Rehabilitation fiasco must be stopped immediately; it will do real damage and cost huge amounts of money. Instead of spending time trying to twist statistics of distantly-related pilot projects to support a reckless privatisation plan, justice ministers should follow the evidence and reduce short term sentences and invest in the community.

August 7, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Privatisation, Probation, Public Services, Rehabilitation

Victim impact statements and parole hearings

A very brave family spoke out today about their experience of giving an impact statement at the parole hearing to consider whether the killer of their son could be moved to an open prison. Geraldine and Peter McGinty’s son, Colin, was stabbed and died in 2001. They made public their anguish at making a huge effort to say how they still suffered pain through their loss only to hear the judge say that this statement would have no impact on the decision to be made by the parole board.

I spoke to journalists and did interviews in an attempt to explain how this could happen. My fear is that it will happen many more times in the future but could be even more terrible for victims of serious crime.

The McGinty family gave their testimony by video link but many families will attend the parole hearing. This means travelling, sometimes a long distance, to the prison where the perpetrator is being held. They may get a little bit of advice and support, they may not. They will be ushered into an room where three members of the parole board and various other officials will be sitting. The prisoner will be there too. This could be the first time that they have come face to face with the person who killed their child, burgled their house or attacked them. They may have attended the trial and seen him across the court in the dock, or they may have decided not to attend. So now, they are face to face but unable, indeed not permitted, to speak to him or ask him questions.

The ending of legal aid for prisoners at parole hearings when they are seeking to move to open conditions means that whilst in the past the lawyer would be in the room not the prisoner, now, it has to be the prisoner as he has no representative and he has to hear what is being said about him. This is the cruellest legal aid cut. It is one the Howard League is challenging forcefully by taking judicial review proceedings.

How can this be happening?  Whoever thought this was kind, or helpful to victims?

The answer of course is politicians. For years successive politicians have exploited victims to get a good headline. Instead of making the system supportive and generous to victims, they have used victims only to increase the severity of punishment.  Impact statements are only about using their misery to increase a sentence.  These impact statements were opposed for decades by Victim Support but sadly it has reversed its stance and now without any appreciation of the distress it causes to victims, the organisation is supporting it.

I hope Victim Support will review its support for impact statements at parole hearings. I hope politicians will take care when tempted to exploit victims. We need a system of justice that seeks to heal the harm done by crime, what we have is a system that exacerbates distress.

August 5, 2014 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Victims

How to make a prison safer: It isn’t rocket science

I spent yesterday in a prison that had been identified as one of the worst in the country but in just a few months has been transformed into a much safer and busier place. The questions that need to be asked are twofold: how has this happened and how did a prison deteriorate so that teenagers were terrified to venture out of their filthy cells?

I will identify it so that readers can see the full extent of the dreadful mess the prison was in when the prison inspectors visited. Brinsford is a young offenders institution near Wolverhampton and used to hold around 570 teenagers and young adults aged 18 to 21. The inspection report is excoriating:

“These are the worst overall findings my inspectorate has identified in a single prison during my tenure as Chief Inspector. Across all of our four tests of a healthy prison, we found outcomes to be poor.”

The prison was filthy, the windows rotting, staff resorted to using force to try and keep control, staff sick rate was through the roof, violence was rife, half the boys spent all day locked in cells, courses were cancelled, the litany of failure is industrial.

It has changed. A new governor was parachuted in to sort it out. He got the boys gardening, painting, learning and active. Many of the internal gates have been removed and the workshops opened so that the young men are learning a trade and busy in education. They go to bed at night tired, so staff don’t have to implement the latest crazy missive from the Ministry to turn lights off. Use of force by staff is discouraged.

It’s not a perfect place. I was disappointed with the food as there was no fruit and few vegetables, both essential as a healthy diet for young men.

There are several reasons for the turnaround. The obvious one is a charismatic and determined governor who took time to understand the prison and then acted with courage by dismissing recalcitrant staff and getting everyone else busy. He made difficult decisions.

Secondly, the number of young prisoners has been reduced by 130 and benchmarking has increased the number of staff. This is the bit that isn’t rocket science. At a time when every other prison in the country has had its staff cut by a third, this prison has done the opposite.

When I was visiting, he refused to accept an overcrowding draft from a local prison and the bus was turned back.  The governor pointed out he was responsible for running this prison and overcrowding was beyond his control.

The Howard League published a report on staff cuts and prison overcrowding a couple of weeks ago and since then the independent monitoring board at Nottingham has warned that the prison is likely to see riots because conditions are so dreadful. Prisons across the country are becoming dangerous places for staff and prisoners. As men spill out back into the community they put us at risk of their increased violence. Two people a week are taking their own lives in prison.

The lesson is clear. A prison that is not full, that is well managed and fully staffed can be a clean, busy and safe institution.

So who is responsible for the shambles in the system? It is a difficult question to answer as there is no clear line of accountability any more. Until the creation of the behemoth NOMS there had been a director general of prisons. One person was in charge of the operational managing of 130 or so prisons. We now have a bureaucratic nightmare with ministers interfering in the decision of whether prisoners may have books sent to them or women prisoners can wear black leggings.

The answer is that ministers are responsible. Remember this, when you read that another 18-year-old on remand has taken his own life. Ministers are responsible.

July 23, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons, suicide